Japan 2017 – Day 16 – April 2 (B’bye!)

We checked out at 7:30 am in order to catch our train. It was chilly and wet and our mood was a bit somber because it was our last day in Japan.

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In the station we bought our last bento box and took a bullet train to Shinagawa (Tokyo) then the Narita Express to the airport. We had reserved our seats on the train so we were in the “Green Car”. We overheard some idiot Americans complaining about there not being seats available when the truth was, they hadn’t reserved any. They were politely (and I mean VERY politely – almost apologetically – as is customary in Japan) to go to another car that was not reserved seating. Whenever I travel, I am often embarrassed by Americans. The entitlement, rudeness, and lack of respect for other cultures is such a shame.

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I LOVE THESE BLUE ROOFS!

I LOVE how clean Japan is. We traveled many many miles and I never saw as much as a tissue on the railroad tracks.
And while I am at it, the Japanese have a lot of tile roof houses. My favorite are these beautiful blue, almost iridescent, tiles. I want one!

Carol and Russell were on a different plane for the trip back, so we said our goodbyes and waved as they hauled luggage, some of it ours that we had dumped on them – thank you Carol and Russell.

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At the Narita airport we made our final purchase…Royce Chocolate. There are some things the Japanese do better than anyone else. Sushi (obviously), sake (Obviously), beef (Matsusaka not Kobe), and chocolate. If you ever have Royce Chocolate, it will make the best chocolate you have ever had, on a scale of 1 to 10, a 6 or 7. If you ever have it, you will immediately go out and buy a ticket to Japan so you can go get some more.

In the Narita Airport we had our last meal in Japan.
Squi, with his eternally positive nature, had Cherry Blossom Cake!
Kaz had Japanese meatloaf and tempura shrimp.

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I am embarrassed to say, I had a McDonald’s Cheeseburger. I think it was a “I’m unhappy to be leaving, guess I’ll go eat worms and pout” kind of thing.
Kaz just rolled her eyes and told our son, “You can’t take the white trash out of your Daddo!”
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We were lucky and caught a great tailwind, so the flight only took 8 1/2 hours instead of the usual 10. We arrived at LAX and although it felt good to be home, we dreaded coming back to a society that doesn’t have a lot of the things we enjoyed so much in Japan…cleanliness, politeness, and the best food in the world.

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Japan 2017 – Day 15 – April 1

The next day Mitsuru and Masataka picked us up again and took us to see a magnificent piece of engineering – a bridge in Sakaide. One strand of the cables that support the bridge could encircle the Earth 4 times! We were able to go up to a lookout point on a local hill and get a photo of the bridge.

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The Hanafusa Family is our 2nd family! Thank you so much for taking good care of us always.

From there, they took us to Kurahiki, which is a adorable town with a river running through the middle of it. On each side of the river are shops and if you feel compelled, there is a gondola in the river you can ride. Actors Headshot Photographer It was interesting to me that the river going through the middle of town had no barriers along it’s edge and it’s about a 6 foot drop to the water. I wondered how many people had accidentally fallen in and also how different the Japanese culture is. In the USA, there would be barriers and people would STILL fall in and the sue the city. That doesn’t happen in Japan. I guess they have a concept of personal responsibility…what a great idea! We shopped and checked out yet another temple that was really lovely. Squi and Mitsuru enjoyed the koi ponds while we wandered the grounds.

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When Mitsuru dropped us off at our hotel, he presented us with a bunch of sake that I was told I had ordered the evening before. Well, in spite of not remembering much about that – I’m glad I did….it’s delicious. There is a Muscat sake that takes 3 bunches of grapes to make ONE bottle…it’s astonishingly delicious!

That evening we “white trashed it”. We went to a HUGE mall, Aeon, and we ate at a food court!
We discussed all the food we had eaten in Japan and decided the best was in Okayama. But to quote Carol,”I wanna just eat my way through Japan!”
Next time!

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Japan 2017 – Day 14 – March 31

We were sad to leave Kyoto. So much to see and do there and lots more restaurants to check out! It was raining and chilly so we left our luggage at the hotel to do one last touristy thing before we headed for Okayama.
We visited Sanju Sangendo, a huge Buddhist Temple that houses 1001 statues made of Japanese Cypress and clad in gold leaf. I think it’s the longest temple in Japan but don’t quote me on that. Another of it’s claims to fame is the archery contest that has been held here every year since the Edo period. Pretty impressive.

We snagged our luggage from the hotel and dragged it all off to catch a train to Okayama. Squi made the mistake, again, of going to sleep, so our tradition of stacking stuff on his forehead while he naps, continues.

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Poor Squi fell asleep while we were checking in

At the hotel in Okayama we got picked up by the President of the Muromachi Sake Company, Mitsuru Hanafusa and his son, Masataka  . Kaz is almost like family to the owners, so we got the royal treatment. First thing on the list was to tour the Muromachi Sake factory, which of course, includes sampling just about everything!

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Muromachi Shuzo continues to win awards all around the world.

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More sampling!!!

The Japanese government gave Muromachi a grant to come up with different kinds of sake, so we sampled Tomato, White Peach, Golden Peach, Red Pepper, Plum, Grape, Ginger, and Yuzu sake! All crazy good but the White Peach was my favorite.

So, of course, what better endeavor to embark on than to take a family portrait of your host after drinking about 87 gallons of sake!? This was an evening I was happy to have an autofocus camera. The last time I tried to pull this trick off in Japan, I tripped over my tripod and crashed my camera through my hosts’ brand new shoji screen! Somehow I pulled it off this time without embarrassing myself too much. It was, of course, tricky to put the camera on a timer, push the button, then stagger over to get in the photo with them!

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They then took us to dinner which was nothing short of spectacular…course after course of crazy wonderful Japanese cuisine and beer and more sake!

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A los angeles headshot photographer Michael HelmsWe slept well that night and because there are not preservatives in the sake – no hang over!!

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Japan 2017 – Day 13 – March 30

Today Russell felt better and we’re off to be tourists again.We took the train to Uji to see a beautiful temple built in 1053.    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byōdō-in

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There is such a rich history here in Japan. Russell and I drive the girls crazy because we want to read all the signs and all about the history, whereas Kaz will take a look, grab a brochure, and check it off her list. Luckily, Squi can’t move quite that fast so we can easily compromise.

We jumped on another train and back to Kyoto we go. We hopped a taxi and got lucky because the driver was a pro tourist guide. He gave us lots of info and took us to our destination at Kiyozumi. There are about 67 gazillion steps up to the temple and they call them the “2 years steps” and another place called “3 years steps”. Basically, the legend has it that if you trip on these steps, you lose 2 or 3 years off your life. At my age, I was very careful.Los Angeles Headshot Photographer
We had a really nice dinner at Hashiba at a restaurant that didn’t usually open for dinner but we got lucky. They wereopen because, again by a stroke of luck, we happen to be there during “illumination time” which is a sort of celebration each year where they light up the streets.

As we descended the gazillion stairs, there were shops on each side so Carol and Kaz shopped while Squi begged for ice cream and Russell and I sat and people watched.

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The girls got their shopping mojo satisfied, Squi got his ice cream, and off to yet another temple we went.

Kodaiji Temple has a really cool light show that is this crazy sort of 3D thing that they project onto the ground and into the trees.

So pretty and almost impossible to take a photo of….so sorry about that. There is also a wonderful bamboo forest there at Kodaiji Temple and the lights illuminating it were wonderful and magical.

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After the light show we wandered around a bit on our way back to our hotel. One common thing to do in this area is look for all the Buddha statues and rub their bellies or pet them in some way. There is a map to where they all are but we just looked for the ones that were convenient to our path.

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Carol and Russell were pretty worn out so they retired to their room but Kaz, Squi, and I headed back out to hit the town. We walked over to the Kyoto Tower http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3945.html. and up to the top floor to have a drink but it was packed and we couldn’t get in. We got a kick out of a sign that said,”Sign up for a sheet!” They meant to say “seat”.

We hit the streets again and found Yebisu Bar open and still serving. Squi chilled while Kaz and I had a drink, people watched, and munched on appetizers.

Another great day in Japan!

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Japan 2017 – Day 11 – March 28

From Tokyo to Kyoto is about 320 miles, which translates to about 2 hours and a half bullet train ride. It’s a beautiful ride with, on a clear day, a lovely view of Mt. Fuji. While it was a wonderful ride, it was too cloudy and overcast to see Fuji.
While Squi took a nap, Carol, Russell, and I went to see the Fushimi Inari Gate.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fushimi_Inari-taisha
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There are supposedly 1000 tori gates here and as much as we’d love to ascribe deep spiritual meaning to them, the truth is they were donated by business men. Of course, there IS a bit of spiritual overtone to all tori gates but “spirituality” in Japan is much more secular than the implications in Western culture.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torii

One very famous temple in Kyoto is Toji Temple. The 5 story (about 150 feet tall) wooden pagoda is the tallest wooden tower in Japan. How a structure like this can be built and continue to stand for HUNDREDS of years in such an earthquake prone country is mystifying.

Settling into our hotel rooms in Kyoto and having another great meal was perfect after a day of sightseeing and LOTS of walking.

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More info on temple meal!

But let me just say a little bit about Japanese toilets. They are…uh…interesting. While I like the nice warm heated seats, from there on, the choices are baffling.

Los Angeles Photographer Actors HeadshotThe bidet…where it points, how strong, what temperature, what the spray looks like, etc etc…baffling. I dreaded going in to poop and having my toilet “crash” and having to reboot it! And of course, all the instructions are written in Japanese, so suffice to to say I got several surprises while in Japanese bathrooms.
Which brings me to one other thing. The Japanese do MOST things better than we do here in the States but one area where they fall behind is paper products. Napkins, paper towels, Kleenex, and the all important toilet paper. IF you get a napkin in a restaurant, it’s usually very thin and fragile as are the kleenex and TP. So I often bought extra thick kleenex to keep with me at all times for various purposes.
One last note to all who are considering a trip to Japan…there are very few public trash cans. You are expected to take your trash with you and dispose of it back at your hotel or home. It makes for a VERY clean society. I’ve looked out the window of many trains there and for miles and miles never seen as much as a kleenex or discarded paper on the railroad tracks! I admire that!

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Japan 2017 – Day 10 – March 27

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I LOVE the bullet train! The Hyabusa is the fastest of all the bullet trains in Japan and we decided to take it for a quick day trip up to Sendai, 300 miles north of Tokyo. The 300 mile trip takes an hour and a half and that’s with a couple of stops! It was a beautiful smooth ride and there was one area we traveled through where they had snow.

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Snow in Fukushima

Russell, Carol and I explored a local temple near the train station in Matsushima and walked down to the ocean to see if we could find any signs of the tsunami’s destruction. At the temple there are limestone outcrops where the monks have carved “rooms” into the rock. The rooms were used as the final resting places for cremated remains and for occasional meditation areas.

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We found nothing to indicate the area had recently been through an assault by a 60 foot wall of water. One thing that helped protect this area was all the islands that dot the offshore area there. It’s amazing how quickly the area has returned to business as usual. As a side note, when you see construction sites in Japan, the barriers erected are often these cute anime characters…again in the spirit of “Kawai” (cute). It’s seen throughout Japanese culture…funny to see a very dignified business man in a suit carrying a cell phone with a cute little charm dangling from it.

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In Sendai, Date Masamune is everywhere.

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Squi and Mommy went to Anpanman Museum

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In the Sendai train station there were lots of places to eat and novelties to check out. One thing I admired greatly was a “dollar a shot” sake sampling vending machine! NOW we’re talking! Especially since I didn’t have to drive anywhere!Los Angeles Actors Headshot Photographer

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We enjoyed a wonderful bullet train back to Asakusa where we checked out yet another temple. I never get tired of admiring these structures. They are all a bit different and all have a unique history.

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We went to dinner with Seri, Kaz’s old friend and Kaz’s bother, Takashi. We ate at Gonpachi restaurant and the good news is we had the best oysters EVER in my entire life! The bad news is, it’ll be hard to have oysters here in the States since they can’t compare. We did an oyster tasting… sampling them from all parts of the Japanese coast. Of course, along with tons of other food, there was the requisite over indulgence of sake and beer.

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Great friends, great food, and a wonderful country make for a truly memorable experience!

 

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Squi loves his uncle, Takeshi!

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Japan 2017 – Day 9 – March 26

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Asakusa Senso Temple

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Rainy Day in Harajuku

One of the things about being in Tokyo, is getting used to spending a lot of time on trains. The thing about the subway system in Tokyo is that it is incredibly efficient. The trains are always on time and you can pretty much get anywhere in this huge city…that’s the good news. The bad news is most of the maps and legends are written in Japanese with occasional English. There are FOUR levels of subway underground and to get from point A to point B, you may have to go down to level 1, take a train for a couple stops, get off, go down to level 4 and take another train for 10 stops, then go back up to level 2 and take another train for 5 stops, then go down to level 3 and take a final train to your destination THEN try to find your way out. Each stop means you have to find the next train and when you come into an intersection, there may be 6 ways you can go….all of this underground.  Not to mention there are entire shopping malls, sometimes 6-8 floors worth, all underground.

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Kaz’s Favorite cookie Ginbisu Animal cookies!

So Kaz went to see her Dad and took Squi along to hang out with Grandpa while Carol, Russell, and I explored. Our first goal was Harajuku. Part of being in Tokyo is just being OK with getting lost in the subway but after a relatively small amount of wandering, we made our way to Harajuku. Known for all things “Kawai” (cute), Harajuku is home to “Harajuku Girls” who dress up like dolls with a LOT of makeup and frilly dresses. Many of them are anime inspired costumes and are quite ornate.
Harajuku is pretty much one long street that is super crowded even on a rainy day like it was when we were there. Lots of touristy shops and places to eat and people watch. I have to say, one of the things I enjoy most in Japan is just sitting and people watching…but I can do that pretty much anywhere I go.
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After her visit with her Dad, Kaz took Squi to Sanrio Land – home of “Hello Kitty” (which, by the way, did you know, is NOT a cat!?) Squi lost his mind there. It’s a HUGE facility with rides and entertainment for days. Even the cheeseburgers are “Hello Kitty”.

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Squi’s grandparents

 

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Hello kitty cheeseburger. Kaz said everything was PINK at the Puroland!

IMG_6478We all met up again in Shinjuku and got more of our shopping, exploring, and sightseeing mojo going.
The top two floors of Shinjuku Station are a food court. Maybe because of the rain, but the restaurants were packed and we ended up waiting a while to have some really delicious Thai food!
We wandered around a bit more then headed back underground to catch a couple of trains back to our rooms.
It was a long day with LOTS of walking so we were glad to sit on the train for a bit, then have a beer, relax, and have a little toast to my birthday.Los Angeles Photographer Actors Headshot  IMG_6454

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Japan 2017 – Day 8 – March 25

Los angeles Photographer Actors HeadshotFrom the comfort and solitude of our getaway in ryokan Kamata, we ventured back to the big city madness of Tokyo. Tokyo is currently the biggest city in the world, and wonderfully – the SAFEST city in the world! I could literally put my camera on a bench with my wallet next to it, go in a store and shop for an hour, and when I came back it would still be there. It’s one of the MANY things about Japanese culture that I love and admire.

In Tokyo we arrived at the train station in Shinagawa then took a cab to our hotel in Asakusa. One thing about the hotels in Japan…the rooms are small….very small. But we figured we were only going to be in there for sleeping and taking a shower, so no big deal but it’s worth noting if you are planning a trip there.

Our friends, Carol and Russell came in that night to hang out with us for a week. We were so happy to see them and excited to show Russell around since it was his first time in Japan. Carol had been there before with us, so this was a special treat for her also.
First stop, of course, was a local bar to get a taste of what the Japanese do and drink after work. We went to the locally famous Kamiya Bar and had tasty bar food treats.
https://www.timeout.com/tokyo/bars-and-pubs/kamiya-bar
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Kaz had to teach an acting class that evening, so she hopped a train and left us on our own to wander and explore. Our explorations started out with going to Akihabra, the electronics capitol of Tokyo. I forgot to bring our selfie stick from home, so it was an easy find in Akihabra.
We didn’t count on our GPS not working so well in the city. Seems the signal bounces all around in the tall buildings and makes finding each other pretty much impossible. Contrary to what Verizon said, my phone wasn’t working, so I was useless in helping find Kaz once her class was over. After a lot of false starts, we all were finally reunited and got our shopping mojo in gear.

We had a good laugh at the Asahi building and the ridiculous giant sculpture on top of the building adjacent to it. Supposedly the Asahi building is a beer glass with the foam of a beer on top and the “golden Flame” atop the other building represents the fire or flame inside the beer. It makes no sense and has come to be known as  “Kin no unko” which translates as “The golden Turd”. At least it is memorable!Los angeles Photographer Actors Headshot
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Even though it was chilly and drizzling rain, it was great to be here and with good friends.
We found a fabulous restaurant and had extraordinary miso dipping sauces and veggies. Even the veggies seem better in Japan.

We made it back to our hotel content with a good day of exploring, shopping, and eating amazing food. Carol’s famous quote of the trip was,”I wanna just eat my way through Japan!”

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Japan 2017 – Day 7 – March 24

Although it was two days before, we  continue to celebrate my birthday. We had a crazy wonderful breakfast including tamago (egg) and lobster miso soup! There was also fish, rice, and different kinds of pickles – NOT your typical American food but sooo delicious.

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We headed out from our ryokan (old style hotel) in Yugawara to catch a bus to Hakone. I wanted to visit this teeny town because of the astonishing woodwork they do there. You can read about it and check out a cool video here:

The bus ride to get to Hakone took us up and over the local mountains and as we crossed over the top, it began to snow! I wish I had been able to get out and take some photos because it was stunningly beautiful. Hakone is a tiny little town located on the shores of Lake Asahi. The lake is tucked into the Southeast corner of a huge volcanic caldera and on a clear day you can see Mt Fuji. Although we didn’t have time to go there, Hakone Shrine is also located on the lake and is indicated by a beautiful large red Tori Gate.
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In Hakone we visited the wood working shops and all the tourist spots where you can buy lovely gifts that are unique to this area.
We boarded a large “ship” and toured around the lake and enjoyed being able to sit down for a little while and get out of the cold, the wind, and the snow.

There is a cable car called the “Ropeway”, that goes to the top of the mountain. It is sporadically open because the volcano frequently belches out poisonous fumes that stop the cable car operations. When we got there, it was closed. We were buying gifts in a local shot when all of a sudden they announced the Ropeway was open! We dashed to the station and hopped on and rode to the top of the mountain to where the volcano was still spewing out sulfur clouds. There are hot springs all over this area and one tradition is to put eggs in the sulfurous springs to hard boil them. This process turns the egg shells black and eating one is supposed to add 7 years to your life! So I had about a dozen.Los Angeles Actors Headshot Photographer Michael HelmsIMG_6337

A slight bit of the snow had begun to stick to the ground so I showed Squi how to make a snowball! He, unfortunately, picked Mommy as his first target. She was lucky he didn’t have gloves, so after three snowballs he was done making them. Los Angeles Photographer Actors headshot

From the top of the mountain, we took a bus down to Sounzan and and from there a small train to Gora. We were having a nice lunch in Gora and waiting to board yet another train, when I realized I had left my cell phone on the bus! In any other country, kiss it goodbye, but in Japan it is a matter of just going back to get it. No one steals in this country and everyone makes their best effort to get whatever you lost, back to you. We were running out of time, but managed to dash back up the mountain and retrieve my phone.
Back down the mountain we boarded a quaint old train and rode slowly to Odawara, then back “home” to Yugawara station. From there a short taxi ride back to our ryokan Kamata.

We were fairly tired from being out in the cold, wind, and snow but it was all so fun, except for losing my phone, and we came back with gifts for friends and great memories.

That evening, after yet another fabulous meal, Squi helped me blow out the one candle on my surprise birthday cake.
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A nice way to end a day and relax in comfort.
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Japan 2017 – Day 6 – March 23

We were headed to Yugawara for my birthday present which was a getaway at a ryokan (an old style Japanese hotel) but first, I had to shoot the CEO of some company. I wanted to pick up a reflector on the way but between the traffic and the stop at the camera store, we ended up getting there late. The Japanese are ever so gracious and I got the shoot done very quickly. Funny how, even a late as I was to get there, the CEOs and his assistant sat us down for a cup of tea before the photo shoot began.Actors Headshot Los AngelesActors Headshot Los Angeles

After the work was done, it was time for vacation to begin in earnest. We went to Shinagawa and waited for our train at the station. Kaz disappeared for a while as Squi and I enjoyed all the trains coming and going. Every time Kaz disappeared in Japan, she always came back with food and this time was no different except for one exception. She got Squi a very special surprise – a fruit sandwich! I had seen most of the other stuff she had in bento boxes but never a fruit sandwich. It is now Squi’s favorite.

The train ride took us down the East coast of Japan to Yugawara.
https://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/regional/kanagawa/yugawara.htm

From there a short taxi ride to Kamata, our ryokan.
http://www.kamata-oku.com/

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We arrived in the early evening and were able to walk around the grounds and take a few photos. I have this thing for bamboo forests – why or where it comes from I have no idea, but I enjoy them. So I was happy to see a small stand of bamboo near the ryokan. Hakone2522webLos Angeles Photographer
There were a couple of waterfalls and a koi pond and unlike Tokyo, it was peaceful and quiet. I can’t think of a better place to spend a birthday with my family.

We were shown to our room but Squi ran ahead and down the hall to what he thought was our room. Unfortunately, he went in the wrong room and we went into OUR room knowing he would be along soon. Sure enough, after a minute, he strolled into our room to join us….but not before he announced,”You do NOT wanna go in THAT room….(the room he had mistakenly gone in)…there’s a NAKED MAN in there!” I suspect somewhere in Japan, there is a man still wondering who the heck the little boy was that disturbed his privacy.

After settling in we had an amazing meal of lobster and sushi (Squi had a burger).Los Angeles Photographer Actors Headshot Los Angeles Photographer Actors Headshot Los Angeles Photographer Actors Headshot Los Angeles Photographer Actors Headshot
We decided to try the outdoor private onsen but that proved to be a mistake. In our bathrobes, it was cold walking to the onsen and when we got there, I couldn’t even hold my foot in the water. It was waaaayyy too hot. So we took a shivering walk back to our room and drew a tolerably hot bath there.
Subsiding goose bumps and another beer put me in a true happy birthday mood as I soaked in the tub.

As we were checking our emails, catching up on the days events in the news, and having another laugh over Squi’s misadventure, the ryokan staff showed up to make up our futon beds and we were all ready to snuggle in for a comfy night.

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